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I fell in love with ropa vieja, a staple of Cuban cuisine, years after I took a trip to Havana. After tasting the slow-braised chicken and peppers served with sweet fried plantain back in the States, I could see how the flavors could originate in a place as culturally vibrant as Cuba.
To my surprise, during my trip, I found simpler, less remarkable fare. The tastiest thing I ate the week I traveled there as a journalist, more than 15 years ago, was served the morning after I arrived by Mercedes, a woman with shoulder length silver hair who ran a ‘casa particular’ or special house for tourists. She served a plate of peppery scrambled eggs, perfectly moist and gooey, on fine China from the Batista era. She poured orange juice from a vintage whiskey bottle and brought me a teacup filled with strong black coffee. I sat in her dim living room with heavy curtains drawn to keep the sun from overheating the home, and ate on a vinyl, spill-proof tablecloth.
I lingered over those eggs, and the heat of the hot pepper sauce mingling with the sweet orange juice on my tongue before heading out for the day, knowing that the city sites may dazzle me more than my next plate of food. I wondered if the lack of culinary highlights had to do with the economic embargo, strangling its resources, or if maybe low wages held back a burgeoning cadre of chefs. Or perhaps, on my Lonely Planet budget, I just missed the good stuff.
Ropa vieja is a dish that matches the pace of the island: slow, like the sultry walks of young couples along the Malecon, Havana's sea wall, as the sun sinks into the Gulf. Preparing it, even with my speedy pressure cooker, takes several hours. It requires cooking the meat (beef or chicken), and then braising it into ropa vieja (“old clothes") in tomatoes, onions, peppers, and spices for another hour. The pressure cooker method has the dual purpose of cooking an entire chicken with fall-off-the-bone meat in about 25 minutes while also producing homemade chicken stock, which enhances the ropa vieja flavor. The result is everything I imagined Cuban food would be during my trip, if only I had found the right place.
Chicken and stock
1 large chicken (about 4 pounds)
Meat from one pressure-cooked chicken, pulled from the bones and shredded (see above)
While Paul slumbers into mid-morning on the weekends, I'm up, sipping a strong cup of darkly roasted coffee, enjoying the breeze from an open window, and planning my day. On weekday mornings, I’m happy to pair that cup of joe with Greek yogurt and a muffin. But on these more relaxed mornings, when it's just me and the red-headed woodpecker out the window alert and awake, I want to start my day with something special and delicious.
In the past, I would have dived into the nearest sticky bun or syrupy waffle. Nowadays, I shy away from the blood sugar crashes and the lethargy that follows those sugar-laden goodies. No thank you, Cinnabon! I need energy to do my four loads of laundry, shop for the day, make lunches for the week at the office, and squeeze in 30 minutes on the stair climber machine.
For months, I experimented in creating an oven-baked apple pancake that reduced the sugar and the carb load while still satisfying my craving for something sweet. I'm enamored with the result. Consider it a cross between a Dutch baby and German apple pancake with a fraction of the sugar and flour. Baked in a cast iron pan, this airy pancake for two tastes delicious and preserves my energy to tackle the day. And it's so easy to make, I'm usually pulling it out of the oven, perfectly golden brown and ready to serve, before Paul wakes up.
Oven-baked Apple Cinnamon Pancake with Lemon Zest
This is gluten free in part because I love Bob's Red Mill gluten-free oat flour (gluten issue aside). Feel free to use all purpose flour in place of gluten-free oat flour if you prefer. Both versions are great!
2 tsp lemon zest
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. In a well-seasoned and oiled cast iron pan, melt the butter over medium heat. Add the apples and stir, evenly distributing the apple slices on the bottom of the pan. Sprinkle the cinnamon on top of the apples and let the apples simmer on low for about 5 minutes. Meanwhile, in a KitchenAid with the whisk attachment, beat the eggs on high for three minutes until frothy and thick. While beater is running, add the sugar, lemon zest, and vanilla extract. Keep the beater running and add the flour and then add the milk.
Pour the batter evenly over the apple mixture until the apples are covered and the batter is poured out. Place the cast iron pan in the oven and bake for 12 minutes or until slightly golden. Remove from the oven and let sit for 3 - 5 minutes. With a small spatula or butter knife, gently lift the pancake edge all the way around the pan. The pancake should easily lift from the pan. If it sticks, it may not invert properly. Using oven-proof gloves, place a plate on top of the cast iron pan. Grab the pan's long handle and side handle, pinching the plate corners to the top of the pan. Quickly invert the plate-pan duo so the plate is on the bottom (I usually give one, quick, vigorous shake during the inversion so the cake separates quickly from the pan). The cake should fall out evenly onto the plate. (If it sticks, it may mean your pan was too dry. If using a dry cast iron pan, spray it first with cooking oil spray, then continue with melting the butter.)
**If you like the health benefits of coconut oil like I do, use half coconut oil, half butter. Do not use 100 percent coconut oil. This causes the batter to stick to the pan and prevents the pancake from flipping out onto a plate.
As a red wine lover also addicted to Thai food, I’m often bummed that I can’t pair lemongrass, kaffir lime, and tamarind flavors with the earthy tannins of red wine.
When I recently spotted a Cook’s Illustrated magazine recipe for massaman curry, chocked full of mild, new world chilis, I wondered if this Thai dish could serve as an exception. I made the recipe twice. It was delicious (and paired well with red wine) but it tasted more North African than Thai as testers omitted the hard-to-find Thai ingredients of tamarind paste and lemongrass to make the recipe more accessible.
My curiosity about the traditional Thai dish, and its potential to pair with red wine, grew. A jar of WorldFoods massaman curry sauce, shipped from Amazon, offered up classically Thai flavors but was sickly sweet (sugar was the third ingredient) and thick as Thanksgiving gravy. I put a spoonful in my mouth and winced. The kitchen sink disposal ate the rest.
I combed through dozens of recipes to find out more about massaman curry. Dubbed the king of curries, it distinguishes itself with Islamic and Malay origins and offers a mellow heat with complex layers of toasted mild peppers, shallot, and garlic.
Massaman curry's smoky new world chili flavor strays significantly from spicy red, green, and panang curries while still grounding itself in the bright, classically Thai counterpoints of lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves, and tamarind.
Once I incorporated those slightly sour, piquant ingredients back into the dish, massaman’s savory notes sang with Thai flavors. I paired it with a glass of zinfandel, and devoured it with my legs folded up on my futon, plate between my knees, relishing the flavors of Thailand. Even better: the zinfandel actually enhanced this complex curry, extending the couch time, and the bottle of wine further.
Massaman Chicken Curry with Bulgur
Most massaman chicken curry recipes add potatoes and suggest serving the dish with rice, which I avoid for reasons you can read about here. I prefer a less starchy meal so I omit the potatoes and serve it over bulgur instead, which holds up nicely to the curry flavors. Also, I strain out the fibrous (and often bitter or sour) bits of pepper skin, ginger, and lemongrass through a fine mesh strainer to produce a silky, more refined curry sauce.
Massaman Chicken Curry
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. On a cookie sheet lined with foil, toast the whole guajillo peppers for five minutes. Cool, stem, and seed the peppers. Tear them into pieces and add them to a food processor with the bird's eye chilis. Blend the chilis into a fine powder.
Meanwhile, on the same foil-lined cookie sheet, broil the shallots and garlic cloves for about 8 minutes until blistering. Remove the pan from the oven and let the shallots and garlic cool. Once cool enough to handle, peel them and add them to the food processor along with the lemongrass, ginger, five spice powder, cumin, black pepper, tamarind concentrate, kaffir lime leaves (or lime juice), two tablespoons of the coconut oil, fish sauce, and water. Blend until it becomes a smooth paste.
In a medium-sized sauce pan, heat the remaining tablespoon of coconut oil and add the curry paste. Let the paste sizzle in the oil while stirring for about 30 seconds. Add the chicken stock and continue stirring. The texture should be like a thick soup. If too thick, add more chicken stock. Bring to a simmer and then turn off the heat. Using a fine mesh strainer and a separate bowl, strain the liquid through the mesh strainer and into the bowl, pressing the solids into the strainer to squeeze out all the liquid. It can take up to 10 minutes to whisk the solids into the strainer to produce the liquid. You should end up with about a half cup of solids, which you should discard.
Return the strained liquid to the pan and add the coconut milk, chicken, sugar, and salt. Simmer on low until the chicken is cooked through, about 20 minutes. If the sauce is too thin, combine cornstarch and water into a paste and stir into the sauce. Cook bulgur as instructed on the package. Serve the chicken curry over the bulgur and garnish with cilantro, peanuts, and sesame seeds.
This morning, I bit into this warm, raspberry oat muffin slathered with butter, and tasted a nutty sweetness with tart berries. I didn't once think about the fact that it was also gluten free. That’s how eating gluten free should be in my mind. No gummy textures or odd flavors that remind you that you're eating healthy. Just good, old-fashioned deliciousness.
As more research points to gluten's inflammatory effects even on those not afflicted with celiac disease, cutting back on bready treats when possible seems like a good idea. But gluten-free baking is tricky. The lighter weight and varying texture of gluten-free flours often render muffins flat or chewy, leaving a lackluster final product.
I've experimented for months on creating a gluten-free muffin I would crave as much as my recent favorite blueberry amaranth-wheat muffin. In some batches, I used equivalent measurements to wheat muffins and got only enough batter to fill 10 muffin cups. In other batches, I used the wrong mix of flours, and the muffins crumbled apart when eating them.
Gluten-based muffins with baking powder bubble up in the baking process to produce tall, runway model muffins. Gluten-free flours, unable to capture and retain those bubbles in the same way, fail to produce a muffin worthy of a standing ovation on visual merits alone. However, with the right combo of gluten-free flours, it's possible to achieve a delicious muffin with agreeable lift and texture that won’t leave you longing.
The trick for me was relying on a base of gluten-free oat flour, which lends a sturdy structure and earthy texture to muffins (like a bowl of oatmeal!). It also pairs nicely with my two favorites, coconut and almond flour. The cinnamon, ginger, and clove combo spices up each bite. Coconut palm sugar, which I use instead of white sugar, lends a nutty flavor and lowers the muffin's glycemic load. This is not a muffin to tolerate because it's healthy. This is a muffin I want to nibble every day with a shot of strong espresso.
Gluten-free Raspberry Oat Muffins
1/2 cup Bob's Red Mill almond flour
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. In a KitchenAid or stand mixer with a paddle attachment, whisk the eggs until blended evenly. Add the coconut palm sugar and the coconut oil and whisk again until blended. Add the milk and vanilla and blend until smooth. In a separate bowl, mix together the coconut, almond, and oat flours. Add the baking powder, spices, and salt to the bowl and mix well.
This sweet, tangy sandwich stuffed with shredded pork has me reaching with sticky fingers for extra napkins. But each bite, dripping with zingy tamarind sauce, is worth the mess.
I first spotted an Indian-spiced pulled pork recipe in Suvir Saran’s charming and eminently cookable Masala Farm. Saran’s recipe intrigues with its exotic spices but offers no sauce. A pulled pork sandwich with no sauce is like a wedding with no bride. It’s the point of the occasion.
Indoor cooks face the challenge of getting the pork shoulder tender enough, and creating a sauce with just the right tangy flavor. Saran’s concept inspired me to delve into Indian flavors and create this recipe, which employs a pressure cooker to ensure fall-apart tender pork, and then smothers the shredded pork with classic Indian sour-sweet tamarind chutney.
Anyone who’s ordered samosas at an Indian restaurant will recognize the sauce. Tamarind chutney has been called the “ketchup” or “BBQ” sauce of the East. Made from the tamarind tree's sour, pod-like fruit (prominent in Asian, African, and Latin American cuisines and featured in Worcestershire sauce), the silky, sweet sauce pairs beautifully with slow-cooked pork.
Recipes for tamarind chutney vary widely in their ratio of sugar to water. Some are sickly sweet, asking for as much as two and a half cups of sugar to two cups of water. Mine dials it down to a happy medium of a half cup of sugar, blending date sugar with brown sugar to emphasize the earthy tang while offering just enough sweet to balance the fatty pork.
Served with serrano lime slaw, this dish was so addictive and delicious that when Paul finished his last bite, he turned to me and patted my arm. “Thanks for the slider, honey. Can I have another?”
Indian-Spiced Pulled Pork Sandwiches with Tamarind "BBQ" Sauce
Tamarind “BBQ” sauce
3 TB tamarind paste concentrate
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